Our Memories Are Easily Reconstructed (Or, Why Eyewitness Accounts Are Never Enough)

CoolResearch_OurMemoriesAreEasilyReconstructedHave you ever witnessed a car accident or other event that seemed horrific or startling? When you recall that story to your friends (or even to the police), how accurate do you think your explanation of the story is? Many of us are under the (false) impression that our memories are safely stored away, like a movie in the entertainment center, and when we need to pull them out and re-watch them, they will always be the same.

Brain and psychology research, however, has suggested that this is clearly not the case, for anybody, no matter how vivid a memory might be. In fact, in time events in our lives reshape the way we view the world and the people in it. As our mind reshapes our perspectives, our memories move along with them. If, for example, you remember attending a family reunion in 1992, you might recall your interactions with a particular uncle. If in 1998 you had an ugly fight with that uncle and haven’t liked or spoken to him since, your memory in 1992 will likely have reshaped your uncle’s personality and behaviors, even though your current perception of him and the family reunion memory are anachronistic. According to psychologist Susan Weinschenk, you might even remember people at the reunion who weren’t even there (Grandma is usually at those things, she was alive then, so she was probably there, right? You might not even second guess, but could actually picture her conversing with your uncle, reshaping and meshing another memory, perhaps.)

None of this may seem too revealing. After all, we know our memories fade in time and the further removed we get from an event, the harder it is to recall the details. But there was some interesting research done in the 1970s that has indicated our memories can change almost immediately and other people have the ability to reshape our memories without us even knowing. According to Loftus (the researcher), several participants were asked to watch a video of a car crash. She would then ask the participants to recall their memories of the event; in doing so, however, she would change a few key words as she asked them. Notice the difference between these two sentences:

“How fast would you estimate the car was going when it hit the other vehicle?”

“How fast would you estimate the car was going when it smashed the other vehicle?”

The only difference between these two sentences is the word “hit” and “smashed.” Interestingly, when Loftus used the word “smashed,” the estimated speed was almost always higher than when she said “hit.” Strangely, too, she would ask participants if they remembered seeing broken glass. When she used the term “smashed,” more than twice as many participants claimed to have seen broken glass. A simple word change and people’s memories changed.

This is a fascinating (albeit frightening) discovery. Eyewitness accounts are clearly not enough when reporting an accident or crime. Perhaps more revealing, though, is that the way investigators ask questions has a serious impact on the way memories are constructed.

Weinschenk, Susan M. (2011). 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.